The new Nationality and Borders Bill receives its second reading in the House of Commons next week. Most media attention has focussed on asylum, with many organisations concerned about the impact of the draft legislation on people fleeing war and persecution. But the Bill also proposes changes to nationality law, which campaigners for this neglected area of policy should broadly welcome.
Last year some 130,568 people become British citizens. At a time when society can feel fragmented and where many of the institutions that once bound us together have a less powerful hold, the common bond of citizenship is more important than ever. Applying for citizenship incentivises migrants to learn English and understand the society they are joining. Granting new citizens the right to enter and live in the UK on a permanent basis gives people the rights and certainty that they need to put down roots and to integrate. Their decision to become British also sends out a powerful message to wider society, with citizenship ceremonies offering the opportunity to welcome newcomers and communicate the common bond of citizenship to both new citizens and citizens by birth.
Yet the benefits that citizenship brings are not being fully realised – an issue highlighted in British Future’s recent citizenship inquiry, chaired by Alberto Costa MP. Many people, who would otherwise be eligible, face substantial hurdles to becoming British. Over-complex and seemingly arbitrary rules are also a barrier for some people. But the most significant of these barriers to Britishness are its high fees – some £1,330 for naturalisation of an adult, making the UK the most expensive country in the world for citizenship.
The Bill reduces some of these obstacles. It proposes a simplification of the application process, removing the requirement that people applying for citizenship must prove they were physically present in the UK exactly five years before their application was submitted. Instead, applicants must show a sustained connection to the UK: a change that should help people submit their application forms without the need to pay for legal advice.
One legacy of the UK’s colonial past is that there are a number of subsidiary categories of British nationality, one of which British Overseas Territory Citizenship (BOTC). The Bill will honour a commitment made by the Theresa May government and introduces a route to full British citizenship for those who hold BOTC passports from qualifying territories, such as Anguila and the Falkland Islands.
Another welcome proposal in the Bill is a clause that allows for the discretionary registration of adults as British citizens, in circumstances where they would have otherwise been British had it not been for historical unfairness in the law, an act or omission of a public authority or other exceptional circumstances. The Home Secretary already has the powers to grant citizenship on such a discretionary basis to children. By extending this right to adults, the Bill will benefit people such as victims of the Windrush scandal who have been stranded abroad, or young adults who have grown up in public care, and for whom a local authority has neglected to register them as British when they were a child.
It is down to the hard work of campaigners such as We Belong, Coram and the British Overseas Territory Citizenship Campaign that these injustices and anomalies have been brought to light and are now being addressed in the Bill. Campaigners have also highlighted clauses in the Bill that give cause for concern. In particular, the Bill provides the legal framework for a two-tier asylum system. In future, people who arrive in the UK through clandestine means, for example, hidden in a lorry, are liable to be granted a temporary visa even if they meet the criteria for being granted refugee status – that of showing a ‘well-founded fear of persecution’. The devil is in the detail here, but granting temporary visas to people who are likely to remain in the UK in the long-term disincentives them from putting down roots, integrating and becoming British.
Few things have more impact on people’s consent for future immigration than their perception of how integration has been going so far. With such far-reaching immigration, asylum and nationality proposals, parliamentarians should be asking what the Bill can do for integration too. The Bill’s passage through Parliament is a chance to open up opportunities for wider conversations about the aims of citizenship policy and what it should achieve, as well as the links between asylum law and integration. These are long overdue conversations.
Jill Rutter is an associate fellow of British Future.